Archive for the Film Category

Only Angels Have Wings

Posted in Film with tags , , on September 28, 2010 by traxus4420

As Laura Mulvey was well aware, the misogyny in Only Angels Have Wings is just as skillfully brought off as its rejuvenation of the aviation subgenre. The relations the film establishes between gender and spectatorship are essential, both to its thematic core and to how it manages audience pleasure. When Jean Arthur’s Bonnie Lee first enters the film-world of Barranca, Ecuador, she’s a challenge to the roving sexual interest of the two male pilots; the possibility that she might resist their advances (as evidenced by the ship purser’s scratched eye) is part of her attraction. The camera adopts their perspective as they follow her, until, mistaking them for scary brown locals due to their lecherous behavior, she brandishes a machete at them. After they properly introduce themselves: “Are you Americans? I thought you were a couple of– well gee winnikers, am I glad to see you!” From here on, the film will adopt Bonnie’s perspective.

We have crossed over into the first hermetic circle — that of whiteness. A white world that must isolate itself from its surroundings in order to exist. We were, in fact, already there, even if our two pilots had chosen to temporarily forget. The point of the machete, though played as a gag (a false hailing), is an unsubtle reminder of the responsibility that goes along with that status. Its true implications will be made all too clear when one of the pilots, Joe, dies in a crash while recklessly trying to reserve his dinner date with Bonnie — having won it in a coin toss, apparently in spite of a preexisting relationship with Lily, a ‘local’ (the only interracial liaison depicted in the film), and the only person besides Bonnie and Dutch who will openly mourn his death. Joe “didn’t have what it takes,” as Cary Grant’s Geoff Carter coldly announces after the fact; more importantly his loyalties were confused; he lacked the self-possession and refusal of all ‘non-professional’ attachments that constitute the ethical code of their boys’ club. She crosses the second circle — that of masculine ‘professionalism’ — by being a good performer, which means learning to submit to the unspoken laws of her audience.

Bonnie, in her series of transitions from potential object of desire, to audience stand-in/romantic foil, to (ambiguously) accepted love interest for Carter, learns in our place the proper attitude that her ‘natural’ fascination for these men implies. When Carter, the film’s libidinal and moral center (it’s relatively rare to see the two combined in one character outside of Howard Hawks movies. They’re usually offset dialectically: think Marvin vs. Borgnine in Dirty Dozen, Bond vs. M, or Danny Glover vs. Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, or Ed Norton vs. Brad Pitt in Fight Club) affects disinterest toward Bonnie, he does the same to us. We came, did we not, to be entertained by a certain type of masculine action movie, starring Cary Grant; the film proceeds to demonstrate more emphatically than most what it takes to be the ethical implications of that choice. As Bonnie the performer wins her tiny, elite male audience by learning to obey its rules, we the mass audience learn to take moral and libidinal satisfaction in the film’s denouement, by learning to obey its rules. Which are the same: I will never ask you to do anything, therefore you must never ask me to do anything. You are, of course, free to leave at any time. And underlying those, the rule too obvious to be spoken: you are not welcome to participate, only to observe.

My viewing partner commented that Hawk’s much-lauded interest in ‘professionalism’ seemed nothing of the sort, in this film at least — too many pilots die, most of the shipments fail to reach their destinations, the airline fails to win the commission that would justify all those dangerous missions. Not to mention the owner, his company held hostage by the CEO, isn’t even that interested. Like the Wall Street traders who steered the global economy into the dumps, these are men addicted to the thrill of having nothing more to lose than other peoples’ property. They are fascinating for being a team of outlaws, men who submit to a moral code opposed to mainstream society, and in so doing push that society’s normative definition of masculinity to the point of entertaining distortion, that is to say its ‘pure form.’ Barranca provides the isolated (because nonwhite) space where this ideal can be privately enjoyed without contradiction. Every analysis I’ve read on masculine in-groups in film has to come up with some awkward way of reconciling the emphasis on teamwork with the equal and contradictory emphasis on individual badassery. It’s film theory’s version of the relation between sovereignty and the state.

Common sense might suggest that the “team of professionals” trope in cinema is a fantasy about living beyond the contradictory confines of an essentially half-assed, womanly society. But in fact, the paradoxes are only more extreme: group loyalty demands that they forget the dead to minimize dangerously distracting emotional trauma; the unconditional respect they have for each other can never be extended to non-pilots (viz. Kidd’s painful loss of status because of his bad eyesight); they’re supposed to be ‘professional,’ but live and die on luck; Carter’s authority is unchallenged despite the fact that his penchant for sending his men on suicide missions can’t (as mentioned above) even be blamed on shareholder pressures. What attracts is not any notion of perfection, but the intensity, the ‘beautiful’ because quixotic irrationality of this situation. These are also features of religious cults and radical conservative politics, both of which rely more on extravagance for their appeal than any promise of a better world to come. Viewing this film in the midst of a widely reported ‘crisis of masculinity,’ it seems more obvious than ever that insofar as there are ‘masculine values’ distinct from universal values, they are little more than alibis for power, privilege, and an arch refusal of responsibility. The last shot, of Carter laughing madly with his bro in the face of death while piloting a rickety special effect, should be read as an ironic commentary on the fragility of this fantasy’s material conditions.

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Aesthetics of Stupidity (2)

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Art/Media, Film, structuralism with tags , , , , on January 21, 2010 by traxus4420

In May 2009 Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, wrote the following hilarious account of the situation at Cannes, in which he called it “the stupidest Cannes ever”:

A deconstruction of what was wrong must begin, I suppose, with Lars von Trier. It would be futile, and, in a way, pointless, in any year to cherry-pick ridiculous observations made during Cannes, but, to begin with a cliché to end all clichés: After the initial screening of Antichrist, a blogger (having read and physically ingested so much about this film I cannot recall who wrote this) stated that he felt he was present for a crucial moment not only of Cannes history, but cinematic history in general. One can only wonder which month of last year this person started to watch film. But, I digress. To discuss Antichrist in such terms—or, indeed, to seek to destroy it—is to play into von Trier’s game. Despite having nine of his ten features screen at Cannes (does anyone have a greater batting average?), he’s always struck me as an overhyped TV director—his best work remains the first Kingdom—so when he abandons storytelling for disjointed proto-Strinbergian-Norwegian death metal psychohorror, well, the wheels have fallen off Lars’ notorious bus. In the context of Cannes, it was hard to completely discount Antichrist: this was, after all, something, or so the argument went. And something is better than nothing.

Antichrist was certainly one of the most calculated ‘art’ films I’ve ever seen, though I have no idea if its auteur had much to do with that. The viewing experience remains inextricable from its neatly packaged behind-the-scenes narrative: Von Trier wrote the screenplay during a “deep depression” from which he hadn’t fully recovered by the time of shooting; he terrorized actress Charlotte Gainsbourgh (after famously having caused Bjork to claim he “destroyed my soul”) into one of the most abject performances of any actress ever; introducing the film at Cannes he announced, apparently in earnest, that he is “the best filmmaker in the world.” All this lives up to his reputation as a neurotic, egomaniacal, misogynist provocateur, while suggesting he might exceed it. Since he is well aware of his media presence and knows how to make films that polarize critical responses into a few predictable genres, he poses something of an existential challenge to critics, who are his target audience. It’s very easy to write about — the streamlined definition of ‘artistic genius.’

Like much recent non-‘art’ horror film, it tries to make outdated cliches effective again. There is no investigation into the issues superficially referenced: the persistent ideological pull of the Judeo-Christian genesis myth, medieval Christianity’s simultaneous demonization of paganism and women, gender roles in the wake of psychoanalysis and behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis as a ‘modern’ justification for the repression of women. Nor is it a treatise of the Godardian type on the cinematic history of these themes.

Instead, Von Trier imagines a world in which every patriarchal ideologeme feminism fought to repress has returned, through the body of Gainsbourgh’s “She.” Willem Dafoe’s hapless psychotherapist husband “He” mistakes the site of this return for her mind, when it’s ‘really’ her Satanic Nature. The ‘turning point’ of the plot — when she cock-punches him with a piece of wood, jerks him off, then drills a stone wheel into his calf — comes just after he concludes that his wife’s psychosis is due to self-loathing. But her slide into insanity, apparently predating their toddler’s death, is unstoppable. Even before arriving at their surrogate Eden (the name of their cottage in the woods) – at once a retreat from their lives and a confrontation with their suffering – it becomes ‘natural.’

There are two ways in which this deeply annoying film is nevertheless worth paying attention to. In both visual style and in the attempt to recreate for the screen what the movements of the ’60s and ’70s confronted and tried to overcome, it is a kind of summation of the U.S. Aughts’ various horror trends, especially J-horror and ‘torture porn’ (there’s a piece by Christopher Sharrett in the Winter 2009 issue of Cineaste that exposes the pretensions of the latter to recreate ’70s horror). This allows it to be be read as a coda in advance to Von Trier’s unfinished U.S. trilogy (Dogville and Manderlay) — America as an exotic locale, a computer-generated fantasy land. As infinite thought notes here, the forest around Eden looks as if it were always digitally rendered. The landscape shots are also reminiscent of recent photography, such as that of Martina Lindqvist and Simen Johan, where forests, animals, and coastlines are given a properly uncanny quality, their typical (and typically American) significance as reminders of timeless innocence détourned.

Martina Lindqvist, from Rågskär Island, 2008

Simen Johan, from Until the Kingdom Comes, 2006

The film’s inchoate aura of doom links it not only to the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Kairo), Hideo Nakata (Ringu), and David Lynch (everything from Lost Highway on), but also American formalist doomsday films No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Road. But the distinctive thing about Antichrist is that America’s vision of nature, not just its capitalist culture, has become decadent; what at first resembles a Native American vision quest (the three creepy animals who might be spirit guides, Eden’s initial appearance in a hypnosis-induced dream) is revealed to be a regression in the wrong direction, away from settler Enlightenment and toward a distinctly medieval, European vision of apocalypse.

The second way is as a visual example of structuralism. She” is not a proper name, a person with a psychology to be penetrated and rehabilitated, but the name of a set: all women, just as “He” is all men. Adam and Eve are figures of nostalgia when ‘Eden’ is a well-heeled couple’s private vacation spot. “He” and “She” are the archetypes of gender itself, artifacts of psychology’s quixotic (or cynical) and all too liberal attempt to describe in the jargon of personality what it has already determined to be better represented by the jargon of objects. Lacan derisively calls this contradiction ‘ego psychology,’ and the film is equally contemptuous of “His” CBT-inspired theorizing. But Nature rhetoric aside, the hysterical violence of Antichrist’s final act forecloses conservative nostalgia for ‘pre-modern’ gender relations. Something rather different is at work here. I’m reminded of the term catmint coined to diagnose Zizek’s op-eds, ‘structuralist pornography:’

The affectivity of structuralism is built around the logic of (pre whig era) conservatism. Structuralism isn’t selling conservatism but it does dramatically ask: what if conservatism is after all reasonable? It restates the idea of a mysterious quasi-divine social order, not as the basis of political commitment but as a horrifying possibility undermining political commitment. It’s surely of a piece with the vague politics of the middle class; predicated on a worried sort of liberalism. But again it’s not too far from conservatism proper, which was always an orthodoxy of absent arguments; the arguments of conservatives being nearly always bad (there’s also a relation to masochism).

One can hear this almost literally announced in the dialogue, which is that of archetypes talking to each other. As is typical of Von Trier, it would feel more ‘at home’ on the stage (and despite the woodland setting sounds as if recorded in a studio optimized for radio or musical performance), and this is what one notices before anything else. Take this typical exchange:

She: If human nature is evil, then that goes as well for the nature of…

He: Of the women. Female nature.

She: The nature of all the sisters. Women don’t control their own bodies. Nature does. I have it in writing in my books.

He: The literature that you used in your research was about evil things committed against women, but you read it as proof of the evil of women? You were supposed to be critical of those texts. That was your thesis! Instead, you’re embracing it! Do you know what you’re saying?

She: Forget it. I don’t know why I said it.

This dialogue is technically bad because it is too meaningful; both too clear about what it means and too abstract to be clear beyond the ‘domain of the signifier.’ Its transcendental dullness kills the possibility of subtext, reading it is a matter of plug & play. It’s up to the violence and delirious imagery to give affective force to what would otherwise be an unbroken string of banalities. However, Von Trier is unwilling to let horror fans ‘indulge’ in making sense out of the bloodshed, whether merely as visceral thrills, or aesthetic appreciation (like in Dario Argento), or as socially significant (like in George Romero’s zombie movies). Instead the intended audience of cinephiles, professional critics, and academics is made to feel the power of apocalyptic patriarchal mysticism, even to suffer from it (to feel physically sick, emotionally terrorized), all while being unable to interpret it in a way that isn’t repellent. In this way Antichrist is as emptily sermonizing as the rest of the director’s recent oeuvre.

“All determinations become bad and cruel when they are grasped only by a thought which invents and contemplates them, flayed and separated from their living form, adrift upon this barren ground. Everything becomes violence on this passive ground. Everything becomes attack on this digestive ground. Here the Sabbath of stupidity and malevolence takes place. Perhaps this is the origin of that melancholy which weighs upon the most beautiful human faces: the presentiment of a hideousness peculiar to the human face, of a rising tide of stupidity, an evil deformity or a thought governed by madness. For from the point of view of a philosophy of nature, madness arises at the point at which the individual contemplates itself in this free ground — and, as a result, stupidity in stupidity and cruelty in cruelty — to the point that it can no longer stand itself…Stupidity is neither the ground nor the individual, but rather this relation in which individuation brings the ground to the surface without being able to give it form (this ground rises by means of the I, penetrating deeply into the possibility of thought and constituting the unrecognized in every recognition).

— Gilles Deleuze, Difference & Repetition

The presence or absence of the self at the root of every bad thing, the ambivalence of bourgeois morals, rests on a certain spiritualized intransigence, something ostensibly disowned but in fact kept as close as a security blanket. Von Trier, quite knowingly, can only replay what he pretends to punish, in himself as well as his audience: yet one more complex, paradoxical, brilliant route to abject stupidity.

The Aesthetics of Stupidity (1)

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Film with tags , , , , on December 9, 2009 by traxus4420

This is the first in a series of posts in which I outline a certain aesthetic fixation on what I am simply calling ‘stupidity,’ which seemed to be at the front of my brain when considering this passing decade. I make no claim as to its ubiquity, dominance, or even frequency.

[UPDATED below]

The prophecy was first heard in 2006 , but by then it was mere journalism. America is dumb and getting dumber. Mike Judge’s dystopian Idiocracy assumes the logical outcome of consumer society is cognitive and cultural retardation, encapsulated in an infamous montage where the Fuddrucker’s logo gradually morphs into:

That the film was made a martyr by its distributor 20th Century Fox probably has less to do with its vision of cultural decline (buttressed by the eugenicist argument that the greater popularity of breeding among the lower classes is mass stupidity’s efficient cause) than with this montage sequence, along with the other spoofs on mass market brands — ‘Brawndo’ energy drinks, Pepsi and Carls Jr. as government sponsors, Starbucks gives handjobs, characters are named after brands — crossing the line of acceptability.

These corporate defacements are the best thing about an otherwise unremarkable and poorly conceived comedy, such that it’s perhaps better thought of as an Adbusters-style toolkit for ‘culture jamming’ (sort of how it’s used in the above link) than an actual film.

That said, it was one of the few satires the American film industry managed to produce in the ’00s, and probably the most effective in the traditional sense of the genre. One could comment here on the failure of narrative to capture the complete and total travesty that was American life in the first decade of the new millennium, that only the most fragmentary and/or ad-drenched forms of media (television, the Internet) managed to say anything coherent about the present as a historical moment that didn’t consist of 100% recycled material.

Or one could just watch Southland Tales. Released in 2007 and set in an alternate 2008, also a ‘satire’ of sorts, it attempts to reproduce the aesthetics of media ubiquity: a digital interface that handles cutting between different narrative threads (complete with news ticker), an ‘ironic’ cast of B-list celebrities, the cinematography of a music video or luxury car ad (when not via handicam), bad sketch comedy,  old-fashioned metafiction, comic book tie-ins, and lots of stuff happening all the time. Yet as packed as it is, and despite the literally apocalyptic buildup, the film is oddly boring. Maybe because the End Times are already here — the reality the film assumes from the beginning. Director Richard Kelly attempts to provide structure via Justin Timberlake’s interminable voice-over narration (added after its panning at Cannes) and a pointlessly complicated plot that tries to disguise the fact that it has nothing to do with anything and could in fact have been plagiarized from a ’90s postmodern conspiracy novel (itself ripped off of Robert Anton Wilson and/or Thomas Pynchon). As Gerry and I discussed in conversation, it collapses three historical moments into the same ‘present’ — its references are contemporary, its aesthetic sensibility is ’90s, and its nostalgia (as with Kelly’s earlier Donnie Darko) is for the late ’80s, just prior to the End of History. Though perhaps tempting, it’s hard to deny that the film tries to be, now and again, a satire, even a political satire. The attempt fails catastrophically.

It is of course a film that was ‘too big to not fail,’ so all appropriate slack should be cut.  And its failure is an interesting one. Steven Shaviro gives a more positive take here, in what is overall one of his best pieces of online writing:

Booed at Cannes in 2006, and both a critical and box-office disaster in 2007, the film obviously has not found its niche, nor found its cult, nor even made the sort of negative impact that would qualify it as a Cultural Event on the order of all the things that it narrates. I’m inclined to think that this is simply because the film is too prophetic: which is also to say, too real, too close to the actuality of which it is a part and which it anatomizes and mirrors, to be receivable at this point in time. The most alien messages are the ones that point out clearly what is staring us in the face. All the more so, in that such messages can have no sense of detachment, no critical perspective, to provide a justification for what they say. Southland Tales declines to exempt itself in the slightest from the overall situation that it describes; it declines even to overtly criticize that situation, as this would mean having to step outside it, as well as because simply presenting it, in its own compulsive mirroring and feeding back of itself, is already more than enough. Kelly’s film is too weird to be taken up by a mainstream audience; but also too mainstream, too much a part of the so-called mainstream, to please viewers and critics who are looking for either visionary, experimental formalism, or an informed oppositional politics. It also explodes the very being of cinema (including experimental cinema) so slyly and casually that it unavoidably offends most cinephiles.

Toning down this hyperbolic praise, I would say that, at its best and worst, Southland Tales is ‘about’ a very specific sort of stupidity, albeit one that has been building for quite some time, a kind of apocalyptic cognitive failure, what would happen if we lived in Jean Baudrillard’s alternate universe  but with his transcendent, guiding intelligence replaced by the 24/7 cliche flow of a comic book nerd. Because, insofar as the media world of absolute commodification really does ‘map’ reality, then that is exactly what has happened to ‘critical discourse on culture’ in this decade, in which I include satirical and ‘serious’ films, novels, visual art, etc. as well as niche genres like academic monographs. If we were to grant all the absurdities assumed by those who have been making such claims since the ’80s (?), it would be even more of a misreading to try to label Southland Tales as creative ‘genius’ or a ‘masterpiece.’ In order to read its intelligence failure as a virtue instead of a symptom — to read it as ‘naive,’ as an epic instead of a failed satire — one paradoxically has to ignore its own botched attempts at distinguishing parodic frame from parodied content. One has to decontextualize it from itself.  Analogous to the way that vital bit of postmodern folklore, “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” is so often taken as the beginning of analysis rather than its dead end. All this leads me to hypothesize an identifiable strategy of misreading emergent in this decade, one perhaps necessary for the application of traditional aesthetic criticism to certain new kinds of material, and again not limited to academic or intellectual critique.

UPDATE BEGINS: An update, if I can call it that, of camp:

55. Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgment. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism. (Or, if it is cynicism, it’s not a ruthless but a sweet cynicism.) Camp taste doesn’t propose that it is in bad taste to be serious; it doesn’t sneer at someone who succeeds in being seriously dramatic. What it does is to find the success in certain passionate failures.

56. Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes, rather than judges, the little triumphs and awkward intensities of “character.” . . . Camp taste identifies with what it is enjoying. People who share this sensibility are not laughing at the thing they label as “a camp,” they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.

UPDATE ENDS

As a completed, reified product, Southland Tales is more clearly looked at as a bigger (and thus more ‘epic’) enclosure and/or recapitulation of media forms and stereotypes than would be possible for entry-level users like you and me, its sublime (yet context-minimal) moments no more or less so than any available on the myriad Internet video networks into which they’ve already been displaced. A chunk of media time, regurgitated. And then, (seamlessly) reintegrated.

5th Tarantino Flick

Posted in Film, History with tags , on August 26, 2009 by traxus4420

“I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”

— SS Colonel Hans Landa

“As a member of the Jewish tribe, I thank you, motherfucker, because this movie is a fucking Jewish wet dream.”

— Laurence Bender

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Every review I’ve read of Tarantino’s latest, mainstream or blog, takes it much too literally. No matter what one thinks of the film, to see all these earnest Jewish critics stiltedly commenting (in good faith, mind) on the film’s good or bad representation of WWII or the Holocaust, as if it were a statement from a major public intellectual that forced a reevaluation of established history, is both funny and painful. Under the logic of the public sphere — what Tarantino is really ‘exploiting’ — they are obliged, whether they want to or not, to come up with some sort of moral response to a meta-farcical action-adventure flick written and directed by a gauche white guy raised by a TV/VCR combo. Even Denby, who’s too smart to be drawn in, stops his critique at just this level, using the director’s immaturity, his arrested adolescence and nihilistic form of cinephilia as an escape clause.

I was quoted here as calling Basterds the “morally weightiest” of Tarantino’s films, and while I did say that (not that exact construction of course) it was only because I couldn’t think of anything better. As in the other four, ‘something else’ does emerge from IB‘s genre mashups and citation games, which I’ll get to. In the course of which I hope to point out two things that are often said of Tarantino but aren’t true: that his films are mechanically entertaining conceptual exercises (that is, non-ideological), and, corollary to the first, that his aesthetic concerns are immature (that is, uninterested in ‘serious themes,’ out of touch with reality, etc.).

Comparing IB to other recent Jewish violent revenge fantasies (Munich and Defiance) as Goldberg does in the second link above (and Alex further comments on) is instructive only insofar as it helps us identify ‘the other’ genre the film employs along with the standard Tarantino palette of’60s and ’70s exploitation flicks. Its resemblances aren’t formal in this case but ideological. Munich and Defiance indulge in historical fantasies of Jewish action heroes meting out punishment to cowering fascists/terrorists and feeling kind of bad about it. Then in a classic ‘negation of the negation’ they frame the protagonists’ ‘awareness’ of their loss of humanity as still further evidence of their heroism and the sanctity of their mission. All of this is of course perfectly compatible with the fascist self-image. And ‘serious’ American action films. And the comic books on which they’re based.

Admitting all of this is the first step to understanding what IB is up to.

‘SPOILERS’

The last chapter ends the film with three formally and narratively connected moments of ‘catharsis.’ The climax as a whole is, as in all of Tarantino’s ‘big moments,’ the result of multiple characters and storylines (each generated from different combinations of genre tropes) violently colliding with one another.

The first occurs via the film-within-a-film, the Nazi propaganda Stolz der Nation, at the premier screening for the German High Command and their special guests. Frederick Zoller is the star, playing himself at a sniper battle where he fought off a 300-man attack by himself from a ‘bird’s nest’ position on top of a bell tower. As we watch the lame, repetitive action, Zoller’s face lit up to look like a confused Wilhelm Meister, we get reaction shots of the elite Nazi audience: Hitler congratulates Goebbels on a job well done, almost bringing tears to the man’s eyes. Shot of Zoller taking aim, shot of an enemy tumbling down some stairs or out a window, Zoller’s reaction, close up on Hitler laughing like a kid. Etc.

The second occurs after two of the ‘Basterds,’ Donny and Omar, bust into the theater and start massacring the audience with tommy guns. The actor playing Donny is Eli Roth, better known as the director of Hostel, and the real-life director of the propaganda film that his character interrupts. Here the shot-reverse-shot combination from Stolz der Nation is repeated, minus the audience reaction shot: Donny shooting, Nazis dying, Omar shooting, Nazis dying, Donny shooting, Hitler disintegrating, etc. Every cut back to Donny zooms in a little closer — where Zoller was made to look noble, at times even reluctant, Donny looks like a savage animal.

This is a fairly basic relativizing gesture, only unusual because we’re seeing it in a Tarantino movie. The revenge plot that in at least some version runs through every film is here given its clearest formal expression. ‘Evil’ comes first, its subject (Zoller) the pathetic dupe of an ideology that never actually manifests in the film (no one ever says why they’re a Nazi). All we get are its signs, huge swastikas everywhere, Hitler and Goebbels as cackling archvillains. This is the pure or ideological form of ideology, which can only appear as a ridiculous cartoon. The Basterds’ formally identical act of vengeance is carried out by Jewish ‘others’ who are at the same time American, authorized by the state and educated by American movies and pop culture (Donny kills his victims with a baseball bat). They are dupes themselves, purely reactive, and not ‘humanized’ by good acting the way Tarantino’s characters usually are. The structural position left open for us is that formerly occupied by the Nazi cartoon audience, which allows us the privilege of ironic self-awareness, free to interpret this scene as public service, critique, whatever, without fear of emotional manipulation.

All characters appearing so far serve for the invisible audience as ‘idiots supposed to believe,’ buffoons who, through being cinematized, are permitted to unironically and unapologetically live out the cinematic fantasies in which Tarantino has been educating us over the course of his career. They are his version of the film critic’s horny, nihilistic, video-game-addicted violent teenagers, the ‘impressionable audience’ both public moralism and irony require to function.

The third moment comes at the end. The Basterds would not have succeeded if Landa, who instantly saw through their scheme, hadn’t made a deal with the American leadership to stay quiet in exchange for full pardon and a hero’s welcome in the U.S. But, rather than let Landa get off scot-free, thus rewriting history in his own favor (the rightful privilege of victors), the Basterd’s hillbilly (non-Jewish) leader Aldo Raine writes the truth back in, so to speak, by carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead. This is what he does to all Nazis he lets live, giving them, as he puts it, “a uniform you can’t take off.”

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Where the Nazis and the Jewish Basterds are ideological dupes, Landa and Raine are not, and their showdown is verbal, far away from spectacular set-piece violence. Landa, thematically and visually linked to Sherlock Holmes (with his absurd Calabash pipe), plays the film’s plot like a chess master. That he’s every critic’s favorite character is not surprising. Raine, on the other hand, is a savage, part Apache even, whose M.O. includes the taking of Nazi scalps. He beats Landa not through Landa’s game of being smarter than the ideological rules by which others (think they) live, but by embodying his country’s exceptionalist ideology in spite of its arbitrariness. This is the film’s last surviving ethical ‘argument’: the Nazis aren’t Nazis because they’re evil, they’re evil because they’re Nazis. So Landa, despite his post-ideological pretenses, is just as much a Nazi as the rest. And we, who have been seduced by Landa (and, one might argue, Tarantino’s roster of amoral hitman heroes as a whole), are likewise punished, forced to take a side vis-a-vis our own compromised position as consumers of violent fascist fantasy. And as Raine scars Landa with this lesson Tarantino is also scarring us with it: after a disgusting close-up of the engraving accompanied by Landa’s screams, the final shot is from Landa’s POV, and the last line is Raine’s: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” But this is not quite an ethical judgment, or at least not in any conventional sense, as I will attempt to show.

This thematically climactic moment is also the anticlimactic resolution of its emotionally central narrative thread, which takes place entirely behind the scenes of the war. Its cathartic moment — the fourth — contains the deaths of Shoshanna and Zoller, survived by their two warring films going up in flames. Shoshanna, a Gallic Jew hunted by Landa, owns the cinema where Stolz der Nation premiers. Zoller arranges the whole thing because he’s infatuated with her. Her revenge plot, which runs parallel to the military one, involves trapping the Nazis in the auditorium and setting the theater’s archives on fire, while a reel of herself taunting her victims replaces the finale of Goebbel’s film — in American English, of course. Having only seen this once, I’m not sure if it’s suggested that Hitler & Co. could have escaped the theater if the Basterds hadn’t intervened. At the very least, the outcome of the their plot (via Landa’s betrayal) renders Shoshanna’s superfluous (even if the auditorium wasn’t barred, the High Command would still have died). Superfluous but beautiful, and the film’s only real tragedy. The Americans rescue her plan from failure while her film, doubly as the ghostly image of her revenge and the setting and occasion for the depicted fantastical exercise in wish-fulfillment, redeems the war’s ugly and castrating imperfections.

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IB is then alternately a deconstruction of and apologia for the pleasures of propaganda, which the film presents as a fundamentally American genre, as American as killing Nazis. The transcendent moment of cinema-love that comes with the Revenge of the (Shoshanna’s) Giant Face (the title of the final chapter) burning up on the screen is an expression of art for art’s sake appropriate to cinema: a work of art is a propaganda piece for its official recognition as Art (a ‘masterpiece’), by asserting the arbitrariness of any distinction between it and non-Art. It’s often been commented that IB is an unexpectedly European film. Most of the film is not in English, and much of its pleasure and tension come from language issues, an area in which the Americans are completely out of their element. But (just like in Kill Bill) they still win.

If one were to reduce IB to a Jameson-style historical allegory (is this the only Tarantino film where it’s possible to do this?), it would look something like this: a fading (feminized, civilized) Europe preserves its cinema’s beauty by recording its self-destruction, acknowledging the arbitrariness of its fate, while a rising (masculine, half-savage) America appropriates power by disregarding the logical (‘ethical’) consequences of its own arbitrariness. IB thus authorizes itself to take that extra, illegal step beyond historical tragedy and aestheticized self-destruction typically glorified by European art film. The first by killing Hitler, and the second by refusing to accept the film’s ‘rightful’ tragic ending: the deaths of Zoller and Shoshanna and the escape of Landa. Here’s Tarantino:

“Now, when it came to writing this movie, naturally, I came across some of those roadblocks. And one of them was history itself. And I was more or less prepared to honor that. Until I came up actually against it. And I go, ‘no, I refuse!’. I’ve never done that before, and now is not the time to start. And what I mean by that is this, I just thought that my characters don’t know they’re part of history – history has not been written yet. They don’t know that there’s things that they can and can’t do. There’s no can and can’t, there’s only action and reaction.”

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The film is run through with the sense that only an American film can do this, can master narrative causality by becoming the first among its slaves: though no onscreen American character really drives the action in any significant sense until the very end, no event in IB is allowed to pass that isn’t authorized by the U.S.A. Therefore only America, as the sovereign of Hollywood cinema’s narrative logic (which has always been just as international in style as this film is), can exceed it, and deliver the audience its greatest possible pleasures. Cinematic pleasure is defined as American. Again, not because America is good, but because good is American. When other countries make a ‘fun’ or ‘crowd-pleasing’ film they can only do so in reference to American cinematic conventions. With IB, the ‘meaning’ of the Tarantinoverse is finally clear: the U.S. rules cinema, and the U.S. cannot die until cinema dies a second death.

Survival Horror

Posted in Cultural Theory, Film, Utopia with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2009 by traxus4420

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Just trying to stay alive, yo. Nothing personal.

A while ago I posted a few things on horror. On my old blogspot (since deleted), I had a few posts on zombies as well as ‘torture porn,’ a moralizing term ostensibly used to refer to one of the more recent discernible horror subgenres, which includes films like Hostel, Saw, and the Hills Have Eyes remake, but which I think really indexes the discomfort experienced by critics who don’t ‘get’ the fixation on extreme violence and gore that seems so prevalent in horror in general over the past 10 years or so. Through the reactions of ‘decent people’ to the horror genre we are told once again that we live in a period defined by unprecedented nihilism and a pornographic relationship to human suffering.

The cultural debts owed by most of this decade’s horror are painfully obvious: the Golden Age of the 1970s, when the genre was infused with as much ‘social commentary’ as fake blood and pigs’ guts. There still is that, but where before it was a barely conscious residue, as much product of critics and ‘the times’ as of the the auteurs themselves, now it’s a fading gesture, dispensed with by all but the most loyal. Joe Dante’s predictably clever zombie allegory Homecoming demonstrates the trade-offs involved in turning horror into a screed. Even Romero’s Land of the Dead, easily the most ‘radical’ zombie picture produced since Day of the Dead, creaks. One can appreciate the anti-capitalist message, but ranking it above the comparatively vapid 28 Days Later by any other criteria is pure nostalgia.

No, the legacy of ’70s horror (in the sense of its effect on later filmmakers) is not politics but reductionism. Zombies, ‘torture porn,’ even the sometimes more highbrow ‘new European extremity’ of Gaspar Noe, Alexandre Aja, Michael Haneke, Bruno Dumont, etc., strip their horror scenarios of everything but the bare premise: the dead walk, a killer attacks at random, now deal with it. Watch.

That there is nothing for the protagonists to do but live or die, nothing to mean but success or failure, is no longer a mere precondition for a broader recontextualization of ideology but the entire narrative and ideological point. Saw speaks its philosophy out loud, from behind the mask of Jigsaw, its Tales From the Crypt-esque villain. “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive,” he tells the sole survivor of his Rube Goldberg execution scenarios, “but not you, not any more.” She thanks him later — her therapist (she ‘fails’ in a sequel when she begins to regard him as her cult leader). One is invited to pass judgment on the frat boy protagonist of Hostel or the stuffily perfect bourgeois family of Funny Games, but when they’re being tortured there is no one else to care about. Even more than the cartoonish ‘slasher’ monsters (Michael Myers, Freddy, Jason), but for notable exceptions like Jigsaw, the new breed are absent non-entities, a-causal killers. In Funny Games the murdering duo are fictional tropes — in Hostel torture is just a business. The Dark Knight‘s Joker,There Will Be Blood‘s Plainview, and No Country For Old Men‘s Chigurh all borrow the trope: the ’00s were the age of monsters without reason. To an audience that has learned how to sympathize with Norman Bates,  cheer on Michael Myers, and fall in love with Hannibal Lecter, it now (apparently) takes structural evil to convince and thrill (in the same way that supernatural and ‘psychological’ evil did in ages past). More than any sin they commit their power comes from defying the techniques of identification, giving the anarchic sense of having defied Hollywood itself.

Zombie stories, the great Robinsonades of the late 20th/early 21st centuries, differ from their 18th century ancestors in that they are unable to repress (or properly delay) the social, which inevitably appears as tragedy. In Night of the Living Dead Ben with his manly know-how is doing just fine surviving on his own. It’s only when people show up that things go wrong — the distrustful, strung-out, and frequently irrational group trapped inside the house with him, and the mass of rednecks who ‘accidentally’ shoot him down in the process of restoring civilization. The recent comic book series The Walking Dead (coming soon to a TV near you) takes its protagonist through a series of doomed attempts to restore the most banal forms of patriarchal ‘normality,’ all of which reduce to patriarchal authoritarianism before falling apart completely. Even Will Smith’s Last Man in I Am Legend, while alone for most of the film, is never portrayed as autonomous: he lives in and on the ruins of New York, driven half-crazy with loneliness (i.e. the scenes where he simulates the lost everyday with shop mannequins).

There are ‘left’ and ‘right’ versions of the zombie myth, but the message is always the same: the horrors wrought by humanity in extremis are always worse than the zombies.The absolute manichean split between human and zombie is insisted on only to be ‘shockingly’ deconstructed, with all other differences either elided or made to look ridiculous by comparison. Like them, we must kill to live, even if there is no reason to go on (civilization is destroyed, etc.). We are them, they are us.

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In horror anyone who cares about something other than the survival of themselves and their immediate allies is (or should be) dead. In that sense all horror is ‘survival horror,’ the name for the genre of video games started by Alone in the Dark and established by Resident Evil. It’s a structural limit, perhaps the only formalism applicable to the genre as a whole, and which has permitted a wide variety of thematic material: Peeping Tom‘s reflection of cinematic voyeurism, the weirdly seductive transformations of Cronenbergian body horror, Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism, the dark satire of Romero. But in more recent horror the structural limit is treated as a natural one, as the only true reality principle and therefore the only true ethical axiom. A horror story is more visceral, more ‘realistic,’ more ‘effective,’ the less it allows itself to go beyond the arbitrary necessities of its genre.

So two basic functional ‘types’ of monster can be distilled: 1) the monster who kills for no reason and 2) the ‘infected’ masses who, for no reason, must kill to live.

The victims, if they survive, usually leave stronger. For the spectator, the encouraged affects are awe at type 1 and pity for type 2. Perhaps counterintuitively, the idea that life is all that matters is usually denied. A good example from 28 Days Later:

Selena: I was thinking I was wrong.
Jim: About what?
Selena: All the death. All the shit. It doesn’t really mean anything to Frank and Hannah because… Well, she’s got a Dad and he’s got his daughter. So, I was wrong when I said that staying alive is as good as it gets.
Jim: See, that’s what I was thinking.
Selena: Was it?
Jim: Hmm. You stole my thought.
Selena: Sorry.
Jim: It’s okay. You keep it.

Not just life in terms of individual self-interest or of abstract ‘life’ in general (animal rights activists start the plague in 28 Days, an attempt to cure cancer brings on the zombie-vampire disease of I Am Legend), but the lives of one’s mates. Domestic hedonism is about the best that can be hoped for under conditions of zombie plague, and that’s alright.

This is the very strange, hospital-waiting-room-universe of a world where popular ideology has nothing left in its critical vocabulary except relativism. Capitalism’s collective fantasy space is finally bulldozed free of class, race, gender, etc. and yet even in the post-everything Utopia shit still doesn’t work! People are even worse! For without a social vocabulary, such a space is only imaginable after the flood, under conditions of absolute constraint. If science fiction can only imagine post-scarcity utopias, horror can only imagine happiness where scarcity is accepted as God. Horror’s current appointed task, beyond affirming the value of life through suffering, is pointing out that mirrors seem to be the only properly universal means ‘we’ have for representing things we happen not to understand.

Minstrelsy Now

Posted in Apocalypse Porn, Cultural Theory, Film, Media with tags , , , , , , , on July 12, 2009 by traxus4420

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If I had to pick one feature of the development of minstrel-type performance from the past 30 years as the most pivotal, it would have to be the spectacularization of their audience. The white working-class demographic of original minstrelsy served as the basis for an entertainment that simultaneously redirected proletarian ressentiment toward racial stereotypes and appropriated/celebrated the racial other’s folk culture. The minstrel performer produced a fraudulent image of the black, Chinaman, etc. as a fraudulent citizen. The effect was the same regardless of whether the performer was racially black, Asian, etc. or not, though this of course did not negate whatever power was gained for individuals within these racial groups (or the group as a whole) by exploiting the minstrel images.

Today the screen includes the stage along with the whole theatre; and on to the town, state, and region. This allows the middle to upper middle class to join in the fun, albeit on different terms. Only natural that they consist of ways to avoid getting one’s hands dirty, of establishing proper distances. We’re seeing the gradual decline of the paternalistic standpoint of ‘learning about the other’s authentic culture’ (already a form of detachment from supposedly ‘direct’ or obscene pleasure) that was still present in the early years of gangsta rap. The last vestiges of those expectations are now reserved for representations of poor brown people and ‘the (vanishing, white) working class,’ and are more often the province of the documentary than entertainment. It is poverty and suffering, not culture, that truly authenticates today. Borat, for example, proved that 300 million dollars worth of Western audiences don’t give a shit about the indigenous culture of Kazakhstan. As soon as we know it’s poor, white, and backwater, we think we know all we need to.

Today, middle class liberals are not after authenticity from the minstrel show, but the patina of sophistication that comes from being in on every joke. The appreciation of skill is wholly concentrated on the performer, and wholly disassociated from the role. The minstrel character is talentless, whereas the performer’s skill is displayed by drawing out reactions from rubes which confirm that they are in fact rubes, and by transgressing (thereby reproducing) the laws of ‘political correctness.’ With Borat/Bruno/Zizek, the central minstrel figure is an obvious cliche — the joke the knowing audience is supposed to ‘get’ — even as it is the one we have to be taught: we are presumed to know nothing about Kazakhstan or Slovenia; we are presumed to find Bruno’s queer diva shtick outdated; we’re told how to find them funny. The on-screen targets of the ‘satire’ (various species of dumb whites, usually, though in Bruno there’s an episode with overly-sensitive blacks) are also reduced to stereotypes: these are the ones we are presumed to accept. A vision of a ‘real America’ is assembled via these performances. It is just as dumb, ugly, racist, arrogant, and fradulent as anyone else who aspires to what we’ve rather arrogantly branded The American Dream, and inferior to anyone who happens to be watching.

More Notes on Horror

Posted in Cultural Theory, Film with tags on June 8, 2009 by traxus4420

Here’s a potted history of horror film, cobbled together from the opinions of academics and my own observations, acoompanied by a few examples, All imaginable disclaimers apply.

UPDATE: The most damning of these is that this list is extremely U.S.-Anglo-centric, with other cinemas only entering the list when they were officially recognized as ‘influences’ on the U.S.-Anglo dominated ‘mainstream.’ Sorry.

Precursors:

– Georges Méliès’ cinema of fantasy. J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907) is perhaps most topical if not most relevant.

– German expressionism – especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1927), Faust (1926), M. (1931), but also deviations and offshoots like The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Vampyr (1932)

Horror proper:

– the Universal Studios period – from the silents: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Man Who Laughs (1928), to the Golden Age: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), to the generally weak sequels of the 40s like i.e. Son of Dracula (1943) (though don’t forget the exception of The Wolf-Man (1941)),  to the minor ’50s revival led by the sci-fi-tinged Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) — in 3-D — and capped by the ‘canonization’ of the ’30s classics with their move to syndicated TV.

– the Val Lewton/RKO phase – Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatchers (1945) — largely exists as a distinct stylistic type because of later auteur criticism.

– 1950s Sci-Fi monster thrillers- Thing From Another World (1951), Them! (1954), Gojira (1954), largely aimed at adolescents in drive-thrus; more traditional Gothic elements sneak back in with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

– Hammer Horror – with the exception of the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1955), this was a (more lurid) return to the Gothic, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and the various sequels and spin-offs that went on until around 1974.

– Roger Corman and the ‘B-movie’ – started in the ’50s working in the sci-fi monster genre, but did his best work in the ’60s, including House of Usher (1960), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Mask of the Red Death (1964) — also notable for the number of careers he helped launch (Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, etc.). Notable non-Corman B’s include Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1964), the first “splatter” film.

Horror’s ‘new wave:’

– ‘psychological’ horror – Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), The Birds (1963), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) – received and still receives disproportionate attention by critics; the first application of auteur theory to the horror genre, though mostly just Hitchcock.

The highbrow respect garnered for such harrowing fare during this period (beyond middlebrow, which the Universal pictures catered to) initiates what may be horror’s longest-running subgenre, the ‘classy’ horror movie, typically High Gothic in style and produced by A-listers (I also include the ‘demon movies’ subgenre here, in its highbrow form of course). The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001)

– Italian and Mexican independents of the ’60s-’80s – led by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Jess Franco – Black Sunday(1960), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), Suspiria (1977), Tenebre (1982), The Beyond (1981), Justine (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Alucarda (1978)

– Golden Age of auteurist horror (late 60s-70s) – might as well just list names: George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Brian DePalma — thought to have ‘sold out’ with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and the rise of slasher films. Also establishes what remains the ‘official history’ of the horror genre.

– Body-horror (late 70s-80s) – the major auteur here is David Cronenberg. Shivers (1975), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982),Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) — full of references to the ’50s SF monster movies.

Horror’s ‘decadent’ era:

– Teen slasher movies – Friday the 13th (1980), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the dozens of sequels, rip-offs, and contemporaenous parodies (i.e. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

– Suburban horror – frequently based on parodic references to earlier subgenres and pop culture more generally. Like the slashers, aimed at suburban teens, but usually far less intense/nihilistic. Contemporaneous both with the rise of video rental and Stephen King-led paperback bestsellers. When not out-and-out absurd tend to be heavy on family values: American Werewolf in London (1981), Cujo (1983), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fright Night (1985), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Lost Boys (1987), Pet Sematary (1989)

– mainstream horror becomes ‘respectable’ again by assimilating the intensity and gore levels of the previous few decades with the pedigree of subjects derived either from the ‘classic’ ’30s (and consequently literature), or psychological, ‘Hitchcockian’ thrillers  – Silence of the Lambs (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Wolf (1994), Seven (1997). Interview with the Vampire (1994) probably belongs here as well.

– (re-)ironizing of the genre, TV-centric but also auteurist in a weird way – The X-Files (1993-2002), Scream (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

– ‘new authenticity’ – includes (though maybe these should be distinguished) non-traditional, ‘underground’ sources (Blair Witch Project (1999), low-budget ‘world cinema’ imports like Ringu (1998)) and ostensibly straight-faced reproductions, mostly of the ’70s or ’80s (Saw (2003), Hostel (2005), the innumerable remakes and reboots, etc.) and with increased gore.

What interests me the most about this are the ‘ironizing’ moments, where the history of the genre is (re) established, and alternately portrayed as dumb, naive, reactionary, misogynist, authentic, etc. Seems to coincide both with auteurist phases and when critics identify ‘radical potential’ and/or subversiveness. Should be distinguished from its comedy and pastiche-oriented counterparts (the late ’80s and ’00s, respectively).